ParaNorman is one of those interesting films that’s so admirable you might just forget to criticize it. Make no mistake, Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s stop-motion fantasy is exactly the kind of movie we want for our children. Smart, funny, dramatic full of consequence and valuable life lessons. The quality of filmmaking here is remarkable and sometimes haunting in its craftsmanship. But there comes a point, late in the story, where everything settles down just long enough that you have time to stop and actually think about what’s going on, and why it’s not quite working as well as it should.
The story begins as every great family movie does, with a character of genuine interest, this time named Norman. Voiced by Codi Smit-McPhee, he’s a spikey-haired sort of lad, obsessed with horror movies and ostracized by his family and peers for speaking to his invisible friends, like his grandmother, who despite being very much dead refuses to leave the house to or stop snooping around Norman’s sister’s underwear drawer for gossip fodder. The ghosts, though often unsettling in appearance, are actually the nicest people in Norman’s life. Weirdness is not a curse in Norman’s world, it’s a blessing that nobody seems to acknowledge but Norman himself, and he never refuses his calling… at least until he has to save the town (a town that hates him) from a curse brought on by their own damned ignorance.
Norman’s community enjoys a yearly celebration, morbidly spawned by a witch’s lynching back in the colonial days. It turns out that the witch’s magical curse – zombies – has only been kept at bay by folks with a gift just like Norman’s, and when Norman’s precursor, his own uncle (a scary recluse, and possibly a frightening prelude of a lifestyle to come for our young hero), passes away unexpectedly, it’s up to Norman, his school bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), his only friend (Tucker Albrizzi), his sister (Anna Kendrick) and her clueless love interest (Casey Affleck) to save the day. To do so they have to embrace the eccentricities they couldn’t possibly understand before this one fateful night, and rest assured, lessons are certainly learned.
What you’ll find in ParaNorman is exactly the kind of adolescent creepiness us loner types always wanted in a children’s flick, and rarely saw outside of the occasional Monster Squad or Invaders from Mars. Social anxieties are accentuated to superhuman degrees, consequences are infinitely more dire than real life (and exactly as dire as we subjectively saw them in our youths), and the spooky stop-motion creates a world at once inviting and creepy as hell. The characters are an exquisite combination of plausible and slightly exaggerated archetypes of figures in all of our spheres of experience. The humor is funny, the film is sincere. It just gets a little boring at the end.
The time comes somewhere around the 2/3’s mark when the threat shifts from the familiar to the unexpected, and ParaNorman has to slow down to accommodate the revelation. There’s just enough of a lull that you start to notice the flaws: Norman’s psychic powers disappear for most of the movie without explanation, a prominent ghostly figure never comes back despite making a promise that implies they’ll be important later, and the threat goes from obvious to so incredibly vague that the suspense dies completely. It’s hard to be thoroughly invested in your hero’s journey if you have no idea what, if anything, will happen if they fail.
But ParaNorman kicks out the jams at the end, culminating in a powerful, spectacularly conceived and impeccably scored finale that sticks in your craw and touches upon themes rarely explored in children’s fiction of any stripe. (Here’s a hint: Think infanticide.) This film comes so damned close to perfection that many will be willing to overlook its obvious flaws. And that’s great. You, your children and everyone else you know deserves to see the excellence ParaNorman has to offer. The good outweighs the bad, but the bad weighs just enough to give it a badonkadonk.